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문학수첩 2022년 하반기호

  • Choi Eunmi
  • 문학수첩
  • 2022

Choi Eunmi

Choi Eunmi debuted in the journal Hyundae Munhak. Her books include the novel The Ninth Wave, the novella Yesterday’s Spring, and the short-story collections Such a Beautiful Dream and The Story of Mongnyeon. The Ninth Wave has been translated and published in Japanese. She has received the Daesan Literature Award and the Young Writer Award. “Here, We Are Face to Face,” the story excerpted here, won the 2021 Hyundae Munhak Literary Award.

At the height of summer a few years back, I was caught in a flash flood while camping. I knew I shouldn’t have crossed the valley in the summer, but I brought an icebox and made the trip anyway. Within an hour, heavy rains left me stranded on the other side of the stream. I was even on the 9 o’clock news.

    I still vividly remember the sound of the rope the rescue workers tossed to me. I knew that sound would save my life, which terrified me. That summer was sweltering and often rainy. Dark spots marred my wallpaper and water overflowed from the toilet. In many ways, I was a woman for whom nothing seemed to go right. One night, I clicked on a video of a terrorist group carrying out an execution and got charged 250,000 won. Persuaded by a home shopping network host’s claim that Korea had reached the point of being considered a subtropical climate, I ordered a dehumidifier, but mold continued to bloom on the laundry I hung up to dry.

    One day a woman with tattooed eyebrows told me to come with her. She said the reason nothing seemed to go right for me was because I had an ancestor who had died a virgin. The woman gave me some red beans and bay salt and told me to place them near a window that faced a mountain. I was living in the same residential neighborhood at the foot of Mallisan, the mountain where ladies in waiting and eunuchs from ages past were buried. I shoved the beans and salt into my closet next to a moisture trap, and every evening I went from coin laundromat to coin laundromat with a bundle of hand towels in tow.     That’s how I passed the days.

    The middle-aged woman up ahead wouldn’t stop crying. Sobbed that she was so scared, she wouldn’t be able to hold onto the rope. In front of me was a man holding a baby in a sling. A dog barked somewhere behind me. Broadcast vehicles sat parked across the way. I knew the rope before me was a lifeline, but for some reason, I still thought I might die. When one of my slide sandals came off and got swept away in the muddy stream as I clung to the rope, I peed myself.

    “It all happened in a flash.”

    When someone described the incident this way to the 9 o’clock news reporter in her plastic raincoat, everyone who had been there understood exactly what that meant.

    In a flash.

    I almost died that day.




As the air grows colder, people start walking around with their necks covered up. Seeing this brings me a sense of comfort. When the seasons change and people begin revealing their necks again, my heart starts to race. It races every day in the summer. I’m surprised at how easily people can go around with such a vulnerable part of themselves exposed.

    I can’t get much sleep with my heart beating so fast. My body’s heat-regulating center gets fired up and keeps me awake. My sympathetic nerves are invigorated, my melatonin secretion reduced. Of course, this is also due to the heat. I’ve been stewing in weather hot enough to rival my body temperature for days. Between 37 and 37.5 degrees Celsius. Probably more than 80 percent humidity. The high atmospheric pressure is trapping hot air, and a typhoon expected to move north is driving up the humidity even more. When the temperature exceeds 27 degrees Celsius, ginseng can’t grow, and when the temperature surpasses 35 degrees, chickens start dropping dead. Every time I walk past a thermal camera, I come out bright red. I can’t sleep because my body is burning up. Because it’s so hot.

It sounds like I’m describing the dog days of summer, but it’s only June.

    The reason I ended up visiting the public sports center so often wasn’t only because it was deep in the hills. Nor was it because the park that formed part of the center was located at the foot of Mallisan. What was the reason, then? The incredible air conditioning? The sports center’s facilities were impeccable. The supply of nice, thick hand towels in the bathroom never ran out, and cushion-soft, eight-millimeter-thick yoga mats lined the stretching room floor. The showers were fully equipped with sunflower shower heads. The lockers were deep, the parking lot spacious. The center had eight ping-pong tables. A new squat machine had recently appeared in the weight room. Persons of national merit as well as women of childbearing age got a ten percent discount. And the convenience store there always had  bungeoppang ice cream in stock.

    At first, I was the only one who bought them, but as the days grew warmer, one elderly man started buying them too. He usually works out with the dumbbells, and before he begins, he spits, ptt, into each hand and rubs his palms together. Then he grips the dumbbell bar with those hands. It’s a scene I end up witnessing right as I arrive at the sports center, and each time it happens, I file a civil complaint online.

    I can spot extremely repugnant behavior anywhere, anytime, and am proactive about reporting it. I reported countless people during the height of the pandemic. I’m this district’s top civil complainant.

    With today’s complaint filed, I head over to the endurance zone and start off with the weighted Hula Hoop. I keep the hoop spinning, sometimes gently, sometimes powerfully, sometimes in a daze. Once I finish with that, I head to the speed strength zone and do single-leg deadlifts. As elegantly as I can, focusing on the sensation in my glutes and the backs of my thighs, I find my balance on one leg. When my workout is over, I chug a liter of mineral water, staring all the while at the indoor rock-climbing wall that no one is using. This is my morning routine, the reason I come to the sports center almost every day. To build up my endurance and speed strength.

    After sunset, I run along the Mallisan track for about an hour. I run despite the rain, despite the stickiness of the day.

    When I still can’t sleep, when the evening becomes yet another summer night that my heart won’t stop racing, I think of that summer a few years back when I crossed the valley. I start wanting to tell someone about the humidity, the heat, the dampness of that day. About the rope and the life vest I’d clung to. About my three-line slide sandal. About the dog that had been left behind.

    I’m someone who finds it easy to talk about these things. When I want to chat someone up or when I’m drunk, sometimes for no reason at all, I talk about the time I almost died. When I mention how I was on the 9 o’clock news, most people don’t believe me, but there are some who do. The sports center was where I first met Sooseok-ssi. He lived in the area prone to flooding at the foot of Mallisan, too, and after running into each other at the sports center a few times, we became what some might call neighborhood friends. Friends who slide on our sandals and go out for beers under the outdoor umbrellas in front of the convenience store. Friends who contact each other only occasionally but never completely give up on the possibility or anticipation of the next message. Friends who have the same escape route and designated shelter to take cover in when it floods.

    —What are you doing?

    —I can’t sleep.

    —Too hot?

    —Too hot.

    When our thoughts align like this, Sooseok-ssi and I head to the highest point in our neighborhood, which is Mallisan Park. This summer, too, we met up there even though it was a Monday night. We sat and drank cans of Tsingtao in front of the park’s convenience store, which overlooked the sports center. Others who couldn’t sleep on account of the untimely heat wave and tropical nighttime temperatures were scattered throughout the park. I could see Mallisan straight ahead. Its walking trail, a part of the third course the city designed to circle the mountain, ran parallel to a track along the foot of Mallisan and fed into a nearby trail that encircled Bukhansan.

    “So do you still have those red beans?” Sooseok-ssi asked.

    “No, I ate them, but I still have the salt.”

    I’d checked around in my spare time over the years and found that no one else in this area had received red beans and salt from a woman with tattooed-on eyebrows. As most people know, red beans and salt are used to drive out evil spirits. The woman was still roaming around Mallisan Park and the trail around the mountain, but these days she was selling ice towels. Cold enough to cool you down with a single touch, she claimed.

    When she came by the convenience store, I bought a towel and handed it to Sooseok-ssi.

    “One touch really does cool you down,” he said, wrapping the towel around his neck. Once he’d covered up that vulnerable spot, I felt simultaneously relieved and at a loss.

    “Do you think she doesn’t remember? Giving me the red beans and salt?”

    “Maybe she’s pretending she doesn’t know you?”

    “Do you want to go to the mountain with me?”

    Sooseok-ssi acted as if he hadn’t heard. Unlike me, he didn’t visit the sports center often. He didn’t even go for walks in Mallisan Park unless I called him out. He’d been a victim of the heavy rains that summer a few years back, still the heaviest rainfall on record in the northwestern region of the metropolitan area to this day. Since then, the summers had grown that much hotter and came on that much sooner. But no nationwide heat wave advisories had been issued in June before. Nothing like this had ever happened.

    The cooling mist that was sprayed to reduce the ground heat settled like chilled steam over the residential area of the city at night. At dawn, ambulances transporting heat stroke patients raced down the same streets the sprinkler trucks had passed through earlier in the day. As the pipes heated up, the sprinklers malfunctioned and the concrete roads buckled. If you stopped and stood in the middle of a side street in the shopping district, you could hear the outdoor air conditioning units that filled the city humming like a vibrator in your ears. In late June, the average temperature hit an all-time high. The first time tropical nights were recorded in June. A chunk of a glacier broke off and struck a group of hikers in the Alps, and indoor events without functional air conditioning were banned in France. Words like deadly, unprecedented, and all-time could be heard on a daily basis. Right next to the banner promoting the sports center’s classes hung an additional banner from the local disaster preparedness team that listed precautions to take during the heat wave.

    I’m lucky enough to have successfully signed up for several of the sports center’s popular classes. My base body temperature is high. There must be something in me that evil spirits crave, and I know without a doubt that even more than being hungry, they hate being hot. I’m drinking beer with my neighborhood friend, who has an ice towel covering his vital spot.

    A glow-in-the-dark flying disc toy traced an arc through the air and fell to the ground. Over at the water playground, people were dipping their feet in the water despite the fact that the fountains had stopped running. Several delivery motorbikes rode up, off-loading fried chicken and trotters onto the mats scattered throughout the park. People lay sprawled out inside the gazebo. The squeak of sneakers, the sound of the wind—then the glowing disc that had been flashing through the sky suddenly changed directions and shot straight toward us. Sooseok-ssi and I shrieked and bolted up from our seats. A pair of bugs I had never seen before had flown over to our table and were rubbing their bodies together. Similar screams went up from all different corners of the park before dying down again. 

    “Didn’t they say there would be a typhoon?” said Sooseok-ssi, returning to his seat.

    I stared at the lights from the residential area that ran along the base of the mountain.

    Typhoons always came. The same way summer was the season for bugs.

    And then there was the sports center. The place located at the highest point in our neighborhood. The place that had been designated as a temporary shelter in the event of a natural disaster. That night many people had gathered in Mallisan Park, but none of them had any idea what sort of disaster alert they would receive before the week was out.




I love myself in the moments when I’m standing on one leg. I like who I am when I’m gripping a decently heavy dumbbell and doing single-leg deadlifts. I lean my upper body forward as one leg supports the rest of me and form a T shape as I extend my other leg behind me. The moment my body trembles slightly as the curve of my butt and the lines of the muscles running down either side of my spine come into view. The moment I gain my balance as I get that tingling sensation in my gluteal muscles and hamstrings. I love my concentration in that moment. I know from experience that while I enjoy physical exercise and have a pretty strong pelvis, it’s endurance and speed strength that are the most advantageous for survival. When I look at men, I place a lot of importance on their buttocks, regularly thinking about how they’re sculpted, and when people step foot into the sports center, I’m quick to sense whether physical activity is a big part of their daily life or not.

    I was standing on one leg, the sweat running off me, when a couple of kids I had never seen before appeared by the foot of the indoor rock-climbing wall. From what I could hear, they seemed to be quizzing each other.

    “Do you know 50 plus 20?”


    “Then do you know 25 plus 25?”

    “Uh . . . 40?”

    “I don’t think so? Isn’t it 50?”

    “Come on, how can 25 plus 25 be 50?”

    I lost my balance. I approached the kids, trying to see whether they were up to anything that might warrant some quibbling, but they were properly wearing masks that fit snugly over their faces and covered their noses. The sports center didn’t offer any classes for children. Summer vacation hadn’t yet started, and today wasn’t the weekend either.

    “What brings you two here?”

    “It’s hot.”

    “Don’t you have school?”

    “We have the day off.”

    “Did you come by yourselves?”

    The kids pointed in the direction of the multi-purpose gymnasium. Only after walking over to the gym did I realize that the sports center had been converted into a heat wave shelter as of midnight the night before. The ping-pong tables had been cleared away and placed against the walls, and waterproof tinfoil mats as well as tents had been set up in rows throughout the room. As the heat wave advisory period stretched on, the city had seen a spike in electricity consumption and decided to implement rolling blackouts by district. They also issued an advisory to the residents of districts facing blackouts that day to take shelter in the designated locations. I observed the crowd of people standing near the fire extinguisher, each one holding a bag. From now on, I wouldn’t be able to use the showers or the locker room in peace.

    I thought about my house in the residential area down below. Mold spores had formed on the damp walls and were floating all around, but I hadn’t been able to ventilate for the last several days. Because the bugs that traveled in pairs had increased their numbers and started swarming the windows. Black clusters of them coated car windshields and building facades, flying away only to return again in droves. They found humid places to hatch hundreds of eggs each, and then they died. No one knew what they were, and no one had seen them before. The employees at the district office had lost their minds over the number of bug complaints that had been filed.

    I went down to my house and grabbed the go-bag I had first packed after the heavy rains a few years earlier. Then I returned to the sports center, sneaked into the stretching room, and claimed one of the yoga mats in the corner. About half an hour into sitting on that mat, I realized something. That no one gave a damn whether I was there to work out or volunteer or sit around like the residents taking shelter.

Until the moment I set my go bag down on that yoga mat, I’d thought the sports center was the safest place around.




I began to sense a strange combination of energy and listlessness from the people sheltering in the sports center. They seemed both like they had come for the experience of camping out in an unusual place for the night and like they had shown up grudgingly after a long night of drinking as a group. People who hadn’t been able to see each other face to face during the two-plus years of the pandemic suddenly had to spend the night packed together in the same place. The person lying on the mat next to mine was a neighbor who had been the object of my wariness and fear as recently as the day before. We’d been told to take shelter, but it wasn’t as if our houses had collapsed before our eyes or as if a flood had swept through the neighborhood. A heat wave was such a silent disaster that people forgot they were evacuating and forgot that there were others who hadn’t been able to.

    All the indoor space to exercise was gone, so I ran the track around Mallisan in the mornings and the evenings. It was insanely humid in the mountains, and the sound of insect wings rubbing together stuck to my sweaty skin as I ran. A fleeting breeze sent the white flowers from the pagoda trees scattering onto the edge of the track. I stopped running and stood where I was, breathing in all the humidity at once, as if sniffing out the spirit of the mountain. Bones and tombstones are strewn all over Mallisan to the point that the trail through it was called Cemetery Road. Since I’d received the red beans and salt from the woman with the tattooed-on brows, I had never once forgotten that Mallisan was a burial ground. It couldn’t only be for ladies in waiting and eunuchs.

    No way were they the only ones buried there, right? Goosebumps sprang up on my skin at that thought, and to get rid of them, I ran down the track until I was out of breath, shouting aaaah. I ran, looked back, shouted Aaaah, ran some more, looked back again, and shouted Aaaah why did you die? Aaaaah how did you die? Aaaaaah do you have a lot of resentment? Aaaaaaah were you really a virgin? Aaaaaaaah can’t you look after me?

    When I made it back to the sports center turned shelter, I was drenched in sweat, surely not a sight for sore eyes. The drains in the shower room were clogged with hair and naked kids were shooting each other with water guns under the shower heads. I found myself strangely busy, standing by the water dispenser  and telling people, “The drain tray is not the place to pour out your water,” standing by the hand towels in the bathroom and saying, “One towel per person is plenty,” and when I saw someone throw out their trash in the recycling bin, I went over and sorted out the garbage again, fuming the whole time. Right on the hour, I called the district office about those bugs.

    I’d just wanted to hide out quietly somewhere safer than my house, but at some point, even though all I was doing was standing near the stairwell, people started to approach me and ask me things.

    “What floor is the women’s changing room on?”

    “You have to go one more floor up.”

    “Can I call my ex and tell him I’m here at the shelter?”

    “I’m sorry?”

    “I wanted to call him when I got Covid, too, but I couldn’t. It should be okay to reach out to him now, right?”

    A member of the disaster preparedness team wearing a green vest asked me to come with him for a moment. I realized it was the old man who had spat in his hands before using the dumbbells. I couldn’t believe it. What was the disaster preparedness team anyway? Wasn’t it a local emergency response group organized around disaster prevention and safety? At the bare minimum, there needed to be some sensitivity to the current situation. Coating public-use dumbbells in your own spit in the spring of 2020 would have called for a public execution.

    “We’ve been watching you.”

    The old man I’d reported every day regarded me now with a serious expression.

    “You seem to have a real talent for it. Anyone twenty-three and older can join.” 

    He held out an application form for the disaster preparedness team. I stared wordlessly at the pen he was also offering to me. I didn’t know how they’d been watching me, but honestly, I was an incredibly busy person. This month, I was teaching equations including the Gauss notation and quadratic equations involving two unknowns to three teenagers, and I had the written exam for becoming a licensed washing machine technician coming up. Not long before, I’d gotten my level-two certification as an organization and storage expert, and soon I would take on training to become a licensed auto mechanic and a certified rice cake manufacturer. Hours earlier, I’d also taken an interest in becoming a forest tour guide. I had to continue to build up my endurance and speed strength, and on top of being a woman of childbearing age incentivized by the powers that be to stay healthy, I needed to take care of my neighborhood friend.

    I stormed out to the lobby and called Sooseok-ssi.

    “Sooseok-ssi, when is the blackout? Which shelter will you go to?”

    Sooseok-ssi said he was just going to stay at home.

    “Come to the sports center,” I told him. “It’s safest here.”

    “I can’t.”

    “I’ll look out for you, okay?”



    More silence.


    As I was calling his name, a woman holding a baby approached me and asked for the location of the nursing room, and at that moment the fourth typhoon of the season was in the waters 250 kilometers southeast of Taipei and moving north at a speed of 30 kilometers per hour. At the same time, two bears had torn their way out of their cages and escaped a farm 6 kilometers away in the southwestern region of Mallisan.

    The baby in the woman’s arms looked at me and immediately began tearing up.

    Don’t cry, I thought. But the baby kept pouting, and again I thought, Please don’t cry, but shortly after, the baby leaned its head back and began to wail. It wouldn’t stop, sobbing as it raised its arm and pointed somewhere behind me. Everyone in the lobby turned to look in that direction. The sweltering heat had fallen over the empty parking lot. The heat, so overpowering that a parked car probably wouldn’t last five minutes in it, was baking the expanse of concrete. It was trapped and blazing in one place, as if all the stuffiness and fear of the June heat wave had been compressed into that square lot. People stared blankly through the glass at that unreal light as if they were blind. The baby was the only one crying.

    “Did you hear about the bears?”

    Residents of the lowlands came up the road through Mallisan Park carrying slightly bigger bags. A seasonal rain front was forecast to collide with the typhoon in a cloudburst. The volunteers with the disaster preparedness team had split up, some of them heading down into the village to help with installing cooling pads in a nearby livestock shed. Twenty thousand chickens had died that week alone.

    “I heard.”

    There was word that one of the two bears that escaped from the farm had been shot dead. The other was still loose, its whereabouts unknown. I went to a corner of the lobby to catch my breath. The fact that the bear was nowhere to be seen meant that it could be anywhere in the area. My back pressed against the wall, I kept reading the same parts of the alert text I’d gotten earlier.

Refrain from entering Mallisan.

    If you encounter a bear, please report it immediately.




There was quite a stir once people learned that the missing bear was a moon bear that had been raised on a nearby farm.

    “Aren’t moon bears the ones that live in Jirisan?”

    Only after these two had escaped did most people learn that several bears had been living close by for nearly a decade. These weren’t the moon bears that were given names by the National Park Service and had surgeries performed on their fractures. Until they were ten years old, the age at which they could be butchered, these bears had been kept in confinement, living in an outdoor cage. According to the old man with the disaster preparedness team, who was caught up on the local goings-on, the standard price one might fetch for the gall bladder of a single bear was 10,000,000 won.

    As if to assuage their fears about the typhoon, the residents from the lowlands who had just settled into tents in the sports center focused for a while on talk of the bears.

    “I think the farmer might have made a false report.”

    “I think you’re right. There was a case where a farmer slaughtered a bear and filed a false report saying it had escaped.”

    “I don’t think so. I bet the bear went into the mountain.”

    At that, a brief hush fell over everyone. If the bear was on Mallisan, people were bound to be affected one way or another so long as they remained inside the sports center. But the CCTV cameras installed at the entrances to the walking trails hadn’t recorded any bears. Not a trace of one, no footprints or droppings, had been found, and all the food in the traps set up to catch the bear remained untouched.

    “Ajumma, where do you think the bear is?”

    I was sitting in the endurance zone when two kids came over and asked me this. Upon closer inspection, I realized they were the kids who’d been asking each other math problems earlier. 

    “Why don’t you call me ‘teacher’ instead?”

    “What do you teach?”

    “I know what 10,000 times 10,000 equals.”


    I picked up a weighted Hula Hoop and slowly began to spin it around.

    “Did you two hear?”

    “Hear what?”

    “That bears rip people apart. They’re not like Pororo’s friend Poby.”

    The kids didn’t breathe a word in reply.

    “Think about it. That bear is being chased right now. His friend that escaped with him was shot dead. And to make matters worse, he’s starving. Not only will he be extremely on edge right now, but his aggression is probably skyrocketing.”

    A woman who must have been their mother gave me a disapproving look and ushered the kids away. I kept the Hula Hoop spinning, a little more vigorously. Now that I couldn’t run along the mountain track because of this bear, my body was itching to move so badly I thought I would go mad.

    “You’re quite flexible.”

    A woman with short, bobbed hair had entered the endurance zone. She was wearing a beige linen dress with a square neckline and loose pintucks. It was exactly my style, to the point where I wanted to ask her where she’d bought it.

    “Want to try?”

    I lifted the Hula Hoop over my head and handed it to the woman. She readily accepted it and stepped inside. When she started to swivel her hips, her dress twirled in the same direction as the hoop, whirling around and around. I found that so funny, I gripped my knees and doubled over laughing.

    “I love this. The twirling that happens when you hula hoop in a dress. Just seeing it makes me happy. Seriously.”

The woman laughed with me. I saw a woman with tattooed-on eyebrows watching us closely as she passed by.

    “Did you come here alone?”

    “I did.”

    “What number is your tent?”

    The woman gestured to the far end of the gym.

    “Where do you think the bear is?”

    The woman’s hula hooping came to a halt.

    “How about this? Try leaving Choco Pies by the entrance to the mountain tonight.”

    “Whoa. Do bears like Choco Pies?”

    “Hm. Maybe.”

    “Couldn’t a raccoon just eat them and leave?”

    Before we parted ways, the woman took me to the end of the mechanical room that led out to the trail around Mallisan.

“I’ll show you something amazing.”

    There was a cement platform that sloped gently to the ground, and on top of the platform was a single footprint. Not a footprint from a sneaker that had stepped in the cement before it dried, but a bare footprint. The woman placed her own bare foot over the impression, the two an unmistakably perfect match.

    “That really is amazing.”

     She looked at me with a mischievous grin, then went back inside the gym. As soon as she was gone, I felt a sudden hollowness inside me and went down to the convenience store to actually buy some Choco Pies. Even as I paid for them, I couldn’t believe the bear could really be on Mallisan. It wasn’t fully sinking in, the fact that lives were on the line, that people were eating and sleeping in the multipurpose gym, that despite the blazing sun there was a typhoon on the way.




I don’t have anyone who would ask me something like this, but if someone were to ask me what I like, I’d want to say:

Kind people.

    I like kind people.

    I have a habit of falling for people easily. Liking people is so important to me that I feel as if I’m sinking when I don’t have anyone I like. So if I can like someone, I will readily, undoubtedly fall for them.

The nurse who held my hand and told me not to be nervous as I lay on the bed in the endoscopy room, I liked for that entire day. The guy who quickly grabbed hold of me and pulled me upright when the bus lurched to a sudden stop, I liked for a whole week. To this day I still like the rescue worker who came up to me when I was released from the rope, soaked in rain, tears, and urine, and wrapped a blanket around me. And now I think I’ve come to fall for the woman who hula hooped with me that strange, hot summer at one end of the emergency shelter.

    “Do you remember me?”

    It was still dark at that hour of dawn, but several people were already awake and sitting up. I approached the woman with tattooed-on eyebrows where she sat on her waterproof mat drumming on her legs and asked her if she remembered me. Now that I was sitting up close to her indoors, she looked older than I had guessed. After a brief pause, seemingly to determine whether I was talking about the red beans and salt or the ice towels, she said she remembered me from both. My chest grew heavy once again.

    When the water’s rising, you can’t have any lingering attachment to anything. In the summer you can’t cross the valley for fun. From where I sat on my mat, I scanned the gym. All the residents of the lowlands sheltering here must remember that summer a few years back. Even sitting around now like nothing is wrong, they must still have that fear of floods engraved in them. At least now that this was a pre-disaster evacuation and not a post-disaster one, everyone here must have had things hidden in their bags that they couldn’t give up even in an emergency.

    “The ice towel guy is still at home,” I told the woman, giving her Sooseok-ssi’s regards. “His dog is sick.”

    None of the emergency shelters allowed pets. Because of his dog’s poor vision and kidney problems, Sooseok-ssi felt he couldn’t just send his dog somewhere else and come to the shelter by himself.

After I told her that, we sat there for a while, the woman studying me without a word. For some reason, I briefly thought she might want to hear about the woman in the linen dress, but oddly enough, since we’d parted ways outside the mechanical room, I hadn’t seen her again.

    “Back when those landslides hit Mallisan, all the bones were swept into a heap.” 

    Some of the elderly folks who were up early had started talking about the floods from a few years back. That was around the time the sports center was preparing to move from its previous location to the current one.

    “Bones? Do you mean the bones of the ladies in waiting?” I cut in to ask, but one of the others waved their hands.

    “Why are you going so far?”

    “They tossed a ton of them onto the mountain. Women with no names, no homes. Women whose causes of death they tried to cover up.”

    “And it wasn’t suspicious because the mountain’s always been a burial ground.”

    Beyond the gym windows, the day was slowly dawning. Noting the time on the LED wall clock, 5:57, I leaned in to confess something to the elders gathered around on their mats.

    “Last night, I secretly . . .”

    “Uh-huh, you secretly . . .”

    “ . . . left Choco Pies at the entrance to the mountain.”

    For a moment, everyone was speechless. The wall clock struck 6:05, and we heard a sudden noise from outside. The sound of several people’s chatter muddled with that other sound, a deep hum like the wind roaring over a motor. Then the doors to the gym flung open and in burst some of the disaster preparedness team members, their faces flushed.

    “Starting now, everyone here is absolutely prohibited from going outside. You cannot use the outdoor physical fitness center. The parking lot is also off limits.”

    Everyone stopped in their tracks.

    I swallowed.

    The bear had appeared.

    “We’ve confirmed that the bear is on Mallisan. It came down close to the sports center.”

    The bugs infesting the area in pairs were running rampant on the mountain as well, and the city was hanging up huge flypaper traps between the trees like curtains to catch them. Apparently some tufts of moon bear fur had been discovered stuck to the traps alongside the insect carcasses.

    “Now that we’ve found traces of the bear, it’s only a matter of time until we capture it.”

    A drone equipped with a thermal camera had been launched into the skies over Mallisan. Hunters with the Wildlife Management Association had gone up the mountain with rifles. As the typhoon neared, the swaying of the trees on the mountain could be seen even with the naked eye. Only the park plaza, on which the morning sun was beating down, remained radiantly calm. I stared out blankly at the water playground where tiny puddles had formed. The woman in the linen dress and the little kids who were terrible at math were playing barefoot in the sprinklers, kicking at the water. Droplets flew up to their knees and disappeared, then flew up again. Suddenly it looked like the woman was waving to me. I wasn’t the only one staring out at them—the children’s mother shoved open the door and ran outside, shouting that they weren’t supposed to be there, that it was dangerous.

    Taking advantage of the commotion, I slipped quietly out of the gym. Wondering what color I might show up as on the drone’s thermal camera, I walked down the hallway, past the mechanical room and up to the entrance to the trail around the mountain. The three Choco Pies I’d placed on a disposable tinfoil plate had vanished. I picked up the plate, which reflected a round disc of light, and went back inside the gym.





    I set the plate on a windowsill at one end of the gym and wandered around indoors looking for the woman in the linen dress. When I found her, I planned to show her the plate that either a bear or a raccoon had licked clean so that we could be amazed at something together yet again. But there was no sign of her at all. I was standing in front of the tinfoil plate like someone in prayer when the old man from the disaster preparedness team spotted me and came over to ask how things were going.

    The people who’d gone up the mountain making a fuss like they were sure to catch the bear soon still had nothing to report by the time noon came around. The mountain was disturbingly silent. The typhoon was due to hit soon, but only the wind and humidity had intensified and the sun was still blazing fiercely. We hadn’t heard so much as a peep about whether the storm had veered west or tapered off, so the people sheltering started to get fed up, feeling like they’d been taken hostage indefinitely.

    That was when it happened.

    First, the lights on the water dispenser flashed several times in warning. Soon after, the big ceiling fan in the gym began to slow down. The subtle but powerful vibration coming from the air conditioner died out and stopped at the same time the red numbers on the LED wall clock display went black. All of a sudden, everything inside the gym was uncannily quiet.

    In the hush that swept over them like an ambush, people stared at each other in confusion. But they soon realized it was a blackout. Outside, impossibly bright sunlight poured down and the trees still swayed in the gusting winds. It seemed as if only things inside the building had come to this sudden halt.

    People who had been inside their tents came crawling out one by one. Once the air conditioner went silent, even the soft sounds of other people rustling around came to grate on my ears. My breathing grew stifled, like something was plugging up my nose, and the humidity under my armpits began to build. People started to sweat, breathing each other’s stale air as they sat gathered in the huge auditorium. The number on the thermohygrometer was changing rapidly.

    Someone realized we needed to open the doors and went over to the entrance but stopped short. They remembered they couldn’t open the doors after all. There was still a bear that hadn’t been captured roaming around outside.

    Thinking the windows should be fine, several people went over and flung them open only for the bugs that had amassed on the face of the building to immediately rush in. As bugs the size of hornets paired up and flew inside, people began screaming and running around the gym.

    Once the windows were hastily shut again, people realized they were isolated in a building that was quickly turning into a steamer. The sports center, now experiencing a blackout and a lockdown, had become the most dangerous place around.

    A woman who seemed to be having a panic attack grabbed me and shouted in anguish. “We won’t be able to breathe. We need to get out of here!”

    I conjured up a rough map of the indoor areas of the sports center in my head and brought the woman to the area that felt the least enclosed.

    The body heat being emitted by the people around me was becoming painful. The temperature kept climbing. Some people stripped off their clothing and others told them off for doing so. Some people wept and others covered their ears. When someone coughed, others quietly backed away from them. Still mired in all the trauma they’d accrued during the worst of the pandemic, people searched for their masks again and put them on, swallowing their breaths.

    As if they believed all their problems could be solved with the bear being caught, the voices calling for its immediate capture grew louder and more impatient. But there were also people who hoped the bear wouldn’t be captured. As the sound of babies crying tore through their ears, some people pleaded for something they could use to block out the noise. At the same time there were others who offered to take the crying babies from their sweat-drenched parents and calm them down. Some people begged anyone who was coughing to please go out into the hallway, but there were also people who were quicker to offer them thermometers and first-aid medicine.

    As time went on, I became more aware of other people moving around. People who’d been scattered, not speaking a word to anyone else when the shelter was still comfortable, began looking to the people around them as the situation worsened. Several people gathered the ice they had scraped from the freezers in the convenience store and gave it to the elderly. They grabbed everything in the supply room that could be used to hold water and brought in cold water from the showers. When people learned that they had the same ailments, they shared anti-anxiety meds and first-aid tips. I and a few others found some people there who knew how to use the AEDs and put them on standby, then went around to all the tents and checked to see if anyone was laid out inside. We separated the people who had a cough but no fever into the stretching room. Then we went back to the gym and made our rounds again.

    I went around to all the tents. I kept going around and around until I was drenched in sweat from head to toe, and because of the sweat I couldn’t open my eyes at all, which meant I didn’t see the woman in the linen dress anywhere, and all these kind people looking out for each other kept grating on me, so I couldn’t stay there a second longer and stumbled out to the lobby entrance. I stood in front of the glass door, thinking about how badly I wanted to undo the latch that had a ‘Watch your hands’ label on it. Only then did the awareness that I was trapped in an enclosed space come flooding in all at once, and suddenly I felt like I couldn’t breathe. Now that I was completely sweat-soaked, now that this had become an emergency situation, I couldn’t help but experience it all over again—the sensations vividly engraved in my memory, the fear that the sound of the rushing water in the valley had instilled in me, the feeling of the rope I kept gripping and letting slip, another person’s struggle to quickly hoist me back up.

    Someone came up to me and asked if I was all right, and as I sat before the glass door gripping the handle, I answered that I wasn’t all right, I couldn’t breathe, I needed help. As I watched the person rush off to grab something, I realized that it was now, and no other time but now, that my endurance and speed strength should have been operating at their peak. Consciously evening out the pace of my breaths, I picked my body up off the ground. Once I was upright again, I looked outside. On the other side of the glass, standing in the beaming white sunlight, was the woman in the linen dress.

    As soon as I saw her, I shouted. Asked what the hell she was doing out there, told her to hurry back inside, it was dangerous to be out there right now.

    But I soon realized how meaningless these words were.

    The woman regarded me with a calm expression, then smiled her mischievous smile.

    “I don’t have all that much resentment,” she said.

    Maybe because the wind was blowing behind her, the woman looked as if she were standing in the one spot where time was passing by. She watched me for a while, then slowly held out her right arm to me. She kept her arm extended for so long that I couldn’t even tell how much time passed like that, her standing there, arm out, reaching for my neck. Soon enough, two of her fingers came to rest below the right side of my jaw, touching the carotid artery. She stood like that for a long time, fingers pressed against my vital spot, feeling for my pulse.

    Confirming that I was alive.

    At that moment I heard a gunshot ring out on the mountain.


    People folded up their mats. They returned all the things they had taken from the supply room. They put the trash in trash bags. They gave back the medications they had borrowed and rounded up all the towels they had used. They unzipped their bags and zipped them shut again. They sat on the edges of the gym stairs and stared blankly down at the landing. They lay with their backs on the floor. They opened their eyes and stared at the ceiling.

    The plate I had set on the windowsill in the gym that morning was still where I’d left it. It crinkled despite not being touched. Tinfoil plates were noisy by nature. Looking at the noisy plate made me want to bow to it. I wanted to bow so badly I couldn’t bear it. So I stood before the plate and bowed once, then twice. I got on my knees and leaned forward until my forehead touched the floor.

    Several people came over and bowed beside me. Someone filled a paper cup with water and set it beside the plate. Someone else placed a bunch of blackened bananas on the windowsill. Yet another person left behind a key ring shaped like a bird. There were My-Chew candies and hard-boiled eggs. Hairbands and hand lotion. When a group of people had finished bowing and stepped back, another group came over and got on their knees.

    By the time the sun set that day, everyone had left the building. Unable to leave right away, people stared at the emergency shelter where they’d been confined. The late afternoon sun was descending from the foot of Mallisan down to the park plaza and at last onto the residential area below. Standing there like that, people seemed like they were maybe looking at something. As though trying to check whether or not it was raining, someone held out the palm of their hand and said, “I think it’s snowing in June.”

    Hearing that, others reached out their hands one by one, as if to confirm that it was really snow. 

    “These look like the flowers from the pagoda trees.”

    “Isn’t it fine dust?”

    “They’re soap bubbles.”

    As each person chimed in, they turned their head to look at something in the distance, like they were giving a group performance. Then they all held out their palms toward that place.




Around the end of the summer, I passed the written exam for my washing machine technician license. I’d had to walk past a hilly road on my way to study for the test, and whenever I was going by, I would always see a delivery truck coming down the road on the right. If I was passing by first, the delivery truck would slow down, and if the truck was passing first, I would pause. Later when I lay down to sleep, I would suddenly remember that and tears would come to my eyes. Because I knew the truck would stop when the driver saw me.

These days I like the delivery truck driver.

    I didn’t end up joining the disaster preparedness team. Instead, I introduced the old man to Sooseok-ssi. Around the start of autumn, the old man said he had something to show me and played me a video. It was footage of Mallisan at the end of June captured on a surveillance camera meant to monitor for wildfires. There was a bear in the video. Wandering around the mountain. It was walking over the dirt when it stopped to sniff the air, then continued to roam around before pausing to nibble on some food, after which it pressed its nose to the ground a few times and then continued to saunter about, unhurried. Nothing out of the ordinary for a bear.

    I still go to the sports center every day. Alone, I spin the Hula Hoop and run the mountain track. There are some things I would be better off forgetting, but I still cherish certain memories. Things like a phone charger left on top of a waterproof mat or the impression someone’s head made on a pillow.

    And the rainbows on the water playground.

    And someone’s footprint that would fill with water when it rained.

    I think of all the colorful body temperatures of the Mallisan wildlife that would have been captured on the drone’s thermal camera.

And of the moments of kindness I relied on. And of the things that saved me.

All of them still remain there, in that place.



Translated by Paige Aniyah Morris

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